China’s maritime commerce and naval activities in Northeast Asia during the Yuan-Ming rupture

Start - End 
2016 - 2016 (completed)
Department of Languages and Cultures
Research Focus 
Research Period 
Research Region 
Research Language 
Research Methodology 



This project is an investigation on the maritime history of late imperial China. Underwater archaeology is a relatively new field in the study of East Asia’s history and has repeatedly provided us with path-breaking new results during the last decades. The following project takes the analysis of shipwrecks that have recently been discovered at Penglai in Dengzhou Prefecture, located on the northern edge of the Shandong Peninsula in China, as a starting point. Penglai has been an important historical port and been used as a strategic commercial and military base for maritime enterprises since ancient times. Nevertheless, in contrast to the broad body of investigation on the Southeast China trade, the northeastern edge has been treated rather step-motherly and in particular Western research on this topic is still in its infancy. The wrecks brought to light some cargo like ceramics and coins and have been dated to the late Yuan (1279-1367), early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties (second half of the 14th century). This period is one of a fundamental shift between two dynasties, a period that has even been designated as a “rupture”. The term “rupture” is used not only because the Mongols were a non-Han Chinese people ruling China, whereas with the Ming again a Han-Chinese emperor came to the throne, but also due to the fact that fundamental socio-economic changes took place with the establishment of the Ming dynasty. In our context, it is of major importance that while maritime commerce was vividly sponsored and numerous naval military expeditions were undertaken during the Mongol Yuan period (famous are for example the attempts of the Mongols to conquer Japan), the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu (r. 1368-98), in 1372 initiated a so-called “maritime prohibition policy”, strictly prohibiting all private maritime commerce. We are consequently confronted with a fundamental shift from an active sponsoring of maritime and naval activities during China’s Mongol period to its officially almost complete prohibition in early Ming times. The period of this inter-dynastic “rupture”, however, has been almost completely neglected in Sinological research. A thorough investigation of China’s maritime policy, of local maritime activities, and commercial and technological exchange during that time is, therefore, of major importance to understand the background behind this change as well as the involvement and interaction of official, in particular military (naval), government authorities and personnel in and with private commerce.

In this context, the Penglai shipwrecks provide us with intriguing new material that can improve our knowledge on China’s maritime activities in and with Northeast Asia. Besides technical equipment, for example Chinese and a few Korean ceramics as well as Japanese coins have been found. At the same time, a few weaponry artefacts were discovered on one ship, a fact that caused Chinese researches to speculate that is had been a battle ship. At least one of the other shipwrecks had been constructed in a very similar way and has, thus, also been considered a battle or coastal defence vessel. Is this perhaps evidence of the involvement of naval staff into maritime commerce? Generally speaking, has the study of naval activities and technologies been very much neglected in research and we especially know very little about the interrelation of navies and/or coastal defence with maritime commerce (publications by Lo Jung-pang are among the few exceptions). In particular in comparison with other shipwrecks that have been excavated in the region around the same time (e.g. the Shinan shipwreck discovered off the coast of Mokpo, Korea, late 14th century) and in comparison with the existing written textual evidence (local gazetteers of Penglai and Dengzhou, travel accounts, official and private histories, tomb inscriptions of involved officials etc.), a thorough investigation of these wrecks will enable us to get new insights into China’s maritime activities during this intriguing time period as well as into the relation between navy, coastal defence, and maritime commerce.

Sources and Methodology Important for the planned investigation is a comparative-analytic investigation of both written and archaeological sources as well as a cross-cultural approach analyzing, when existent, also sources from Korea and Japan. The archaeological documentation on shipwrecks in the region is clear. We possess, for example, a special volume introducing the four shipwrecks found at Penglai and a well manageable number of Chinese and a few English articles. Also the Shinan shipwreck, found off the Korean coast, is well documented. As far as written sources are concerned, both official as well as private textual evidence has to be considered in a critical comparative-analytic manner. The quantity of texts to be analyzed, too, is clear and manageable. Investigation on the local level, for example, is basically restricted to the Local Gazetteers of Penglai and Dengzhou (Penglai xianzhi; Dengzhou fuzhi) as well as biographies of officials involved. Also works to be considered for a comparison of the local situation with official/central policies are very manageable in terms of quantity, such as the Official History of the Yuan Dynasty (Yuan shi) or the Official History of the Ming Dynasty (Ming shi). In addition, electronically accessible databases (CrossAsia, Siku quanshu etc., database of the Academia Sinica, Taibei) facilitate search for relevant entries.

The overwhelming majority of sources and literature is in Chinese, only few sources exist in Japanese and only a very small quantity of secondary literature might be accessible only in Korean. Primary sources from Korea are, for example, also written in Chinese.

Research questions In recent years great progress has been made in the explanation of China’s maritime trade policies and their particular characteristics. Nevertheless is the shift from the late Yuan to the early Ming dynasty still a relatively blank page in China’s maritime history, in particular as far as the northern edge of the East Asian waters is concerned. To better understand the fundamental changes that took place during this period, it is necessary to investigate the interrelationship of both official and private maritime activities (including smuggling) as well as maritime commerce and military (naval) undertakings (coastal defence including the suppression of smuggling; punitive actions etc.) and to critically compare and contrast with each other officially pronounced government policies with local private and official practices.

First of all, local evidence, both archaeological and written, has to be analyzed. This includes the examination of the archaeological in situ documentation and local written sources, such as the gazetteers. The main emphasis will lie on the analysis of these sources. An investigation of the shipwrecks and the composition of the cargoes as well as written documentation shall provide answers to questions like the following: Were the ships primarily engaged in commercial or military activities? Who traded the commodities and with whom were they exchanged? To what extent were foreigners residing in Penglai or the Shandong Peninsula involved? Was it an official, half-official, private or even “illegal” trade? Who was involved in these activities? What was the purpose of the supposed battle ships? Do archaeological and written evidence complement or rather contradict each other? What conclusions can be drawn concerning the interrelationship of private commerce with official institutions (such as the local Coastal Defence Department or the Maritime Trade Office, responsible for taxation and maritime trade supervision) and the involvement of the military in maritime commerce?

Secondly, the non-Chinese archaeological (such as the Shinan shipwreck) and written evidence (i.e. above all Korean and Japanese), will be investigated according to the same catalogue of questions and the results of the local and “international” investigation be critically compared with each other. In this context, it will also be necessary to examine if the evidence from foreign, non-Chinese sources significantly differs from Chinese ones, if or not they can substantially enlarge our knowledge of China’s maritime trade and in what respect/s? If yes, what conclusions can we draw from this? Can we obtain more information about China’s potential trading partners abroad? Such information can provide us with a more concrete picture of the structure of trading networks in Northeast Asia.

Finally, the results of this analysis will be placed into the broader framework of China’s official maritime policy. This means that the roles and the interrelationship of the Chinese state (official) in the form of central and local government institutions (administrative and military) and local officials, as well as of Chinese and foreign merchants trading in the region (private commerce) have to be investigated. Were official naval ships directly involved in private maritime commerce or did they rather try to obstruct maritime trade already at this early stage of the Ming dynasty? To what extent were political and/or military (state) interests conducive or destructive to a further development of maritime trade, or vice versa.

This analysis will, eventually, enable us to provide a more general picture of the particular characteristics of China’s maritime network at this northern edge of the East Asian waters, including the extent of interconnectedness of official and private elements, commercial and naval activities, and Chinese and foreign persons, products and institutions (including governments and state authorities).

Long-durée-Perspectives of the Research Project The analysis of commercial and naval activities in this economically and strategically speaking important area and its thorough comparison with the official maritime policy during a period that has been called the “Yuan-Ming rupture” will importantly enrich and perhaps even revise our knowledge on China’s maritime contemporary commerce and naval activities. It will enable us to better understand reasons for this rupture or even to learn that it perhaps was not the rupture sinology is talking about, but rather a gradual change. Above all, we will receive new insights into commercial and naval activities in the still very much understudied region of Northeast Asia, into the interaction of North China with her neighbours and the interconnectedness of not solely official and private but also commercial and military (naval) maritime activities during a time that is still a relatively blank sheet in Chinese history.



Phd Student(s)